Ministry of Sound: Louisa Bufardeci

We embroider a lot of things, for a number of reasons. Embroidery can record what we see and what we feel. Rarely do we find work about what we hear. Australian artist Louisa Bufardeci embroiders sound. Not music or bird song or even children’s giggles, but sound bites of conversations and speeches we will never know.

Born in Melbourne, Bufardeci’s postgraduate studies took her to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where the artist Anne Wilson (Embroidery September 2003) is part of the Fiber and Material Studies department. “The Art Institute of Chicago was very open during the whole course,” she explains of the programme that established the curious combinations present in her embroidered work today. Working across disciplines, Bufardeci’s portfolio drew on the support of the sound technicians in the technology department to make visual the sound files she translates into stitch.

Like so many textile references, it was her mother’s interest in Italian needlework that suggested to Bufardeci the potential of turning sound wave charts into embroidery. “The grid that I stitch on is a system, and the very first thing that drew me to it was the shape of the sound wave and the shape of Bargello needlepoint. Its form has the look of regular waves that are repeated eternally. It struck me as a possibility for things that go up and down.”

Bufardeci’s previous work often made use of harvested data, such as statistics gathered from the CIA fact book online. For her recent exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney with the Japanese artist Zon Ito, she showed embroideries alongside a large site-specific installation made from wood as well as several large works on paper. “I never feel wed to one material,” she explains. “I like ideas to drive materials and remain open to the possibilities of making work from anything.” It might be this approach to multiple materials that allows Bufardeci to use embroidery for its strengths, without feeling confined to the technique.

The sound wave series contains both machine and hand stitched work. Some are tidily finished off; others leave loose threads and hasty knots dangling. Considering the consistency of her reference material, her work with stitch is packed with unexpected variety.

The 13 captured telephone conversations series is machine stitched and coded in two colours. The patterns are mesmerising but unfathomable, with single, spidery lines that jump diagonally across the work. The sound is both real and imagined, varying from conversations history teaches us were tapped to private conversations within the artist’s home. “Warrantless, wireless, telephone tapping – how does it affect the sanctity of the domestic space?” Bufardeci asks before explaining that the series “captures the sense of paranoia generated by the idea that anyone could be listening in, anytime.”

Stretching from left to right, the Antiwar series adopts the orientation of landscape paintings. The crimson hand stitched wool does not record lengthy dialogue but mere moments, presumably, of fervour and monotone. At a glance the imagery could relate to horizons, with mountain peaks and their reflections on water. This potential for misreading appears throughout all the work, just as the potential for mishearing lingers around every spoken word.

In the loosely and rapidly stitched series Every second is like, forever, and every year is like 11.3 centimetres we see an even greater variation of stitches and frayed, hasty edges left hanging. These are the most colourful of Bufardeci’s embroideries and the least restrained. Here the sound waves come from an anti-war speech recorded at the Australian town of Adelaide in September of 2006. The titles of each work in the series are attributed to a “hypothetical anti-war speech from history.” In her statement to accompany the work, Bufardeci reveals her sense of frustration surrounding the state of international politics today: “What to do when, despite the daily media coverage whose news is as regularly repetitive as the grid on the fly screen [through which she stitches], I feel so removed. And unwilling. So I sit and stitch and this action becomes an action of inaction, like all my other daily actions. And they become actions of waiting where every second takes forever and every year is absurd.”

Recently exhibited in Sydney, Yes and No are a dazzle of coloured lines that dash back and forth like hasty scribbles. The obvious irony can be seen in the similarities the two now share, even if their messages could not be more different. Bufardeci’s knack lies in her ability to translate raw data in appealing visual content. The audio files she uses could as easily be a heartbeat or an earthquake instead of conversation. The unimportance of the original recording seems to be part of her point. But a further element is her choice of a time consuming process: “I know I should be making my work to please myself,” she explains. “I make sure I enjoy the making.”

The process reminds me of the American artist Anna Von Mertens, who translates data into the colour and stitch of quilts. Von Mertens’ early works took facts such as her height measured against the door jam in her childhood home, the colour of the setting sun or the constellations in the night sky during momentous dates in history. For both artists there seems to be a balance of fact and luck, combined with a hefty dose of time. Data is gathered, translated and a new image emerges that is not wholly based on the artist’s eye, nor is it entirely random.

Embroidery magazine (March/April 2010: 32-35)